Friday, October 17, 2014

Grammaring grammar

On the very excellent google group Ancient Greek Best Practices we have been discussing a little lately about the place of using target language grammar terms to discuss grammar in the target language (e.g. Greek terminology to discuss Greek grammar in Greek, rather than English terms, or in contrast to no grammar discussion).

In today's post I want to sidetrack to personal reflection, which is why here's a blog post instead of another discussion post on that group.

I like grammar. I find it interesting. It's one reason I fared so well under the traditional grammar-translation approach, and ended up where I am. The Latin teachers I interact with talk about 4%ers, those who 'get' and excel with grammar translation. That's me, "I am the 4%".

Why do we even 'have' grammar terms? I take it that it's because grammar terms are a very helpful tool for communicating when what we want to talk about is language itself. So for students who are learning a language, it's sometimes useful to discuss language itself because it can clarify "what's going on".

As you may know, I am a L2 speaker of Mongolian, largely acquired by one-to-one lessons and living and working in-country. Being a 'grammar guy' helped in two ways. Firstly, when my teachers wanted to explain a new structure, they didn't need to explain it to me as a new idea. Basically, once I grasped what kind of structure it was, or what it was doing, I had an understanding of the concept. I didn't (and don't) necessarily have mastery of the usage. Indeed, there are a lot of features I don't regularly use in daily conversation, but I 'get' what's going on. I didn't have to learn the idea of case, I didn't have to learn what the 8 cases are doing. And that's the shallow end. This is a huge advantage.

But more importantly, I think, though perhaps not more 'foundationally', learning Mongolian grammar terms gave me the ability to interact with my teachers about the language in the language. This was crucial since only one of my teachers speaks English, and even she would generally feel more comfortable conversing about grammar in Mongolian. So discussing grammar in English was not a viable option.

This has also helped me in teaching Greek here. Although I state that my preference is to discuss Greek grammar in Greek, I don't teach introductory Greek, so I kind of miss my critical period there. Instead I predominantly teach text-based classes. Therefore, knowing Mongolian grammar terms is invaluable, because I can express grammatical ideas in the students' native language.

This might seem to go against my stated principles, and to be fair it does. It's a compromise wrought by circumstances. But my focus in this post is on the Mongolian side of the equation.

To bring this to a close, if you don't have a common language with an interlocutor except your target language (i.e. if my interlocutors only speak Mongolian), then grammar in Mongolian is the only way to discuss Mongolian language. If we never want to talk about language, we never need to learn grammar terms. Just how I don't know any terms related to building except the most basic ones. I can barely remember the word for hammer; I never talk about construction. I do talk about language a lot though.

To talk in a language requires talking in a language. To talk about a language requires language about language (meta-language).

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